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ASHERAH (pl. asherim; in Judges iii, 7, II Chron. xix, 3, xxxiii, 3, asheroth): The transliteration of a Hebrew word which in the A. V. of the English Bible (following the LXX and Vulgate) is rendered “grove” or “groves” (see Groves and Trees, Sacred); in the A. V. the word is transferred (” Asherah “) without attempt at translation.
Two Distinct Meanings.
In explaining its meaning two entirely different senses in which it is employed must be distinguished: (1) as a sacred tree-stem or pole; (2) as the name of a Canaanitic goddess. There is now no doubt of the general meaning when the word is used in the former sense. Exactly what the latter refers to is still a matter of much debate. There are only three passages (Judges iii, 7; I Kings xviii, 19; II Kings xxiii, 4) in which the word (used with ba‘al) clearly refers to a goddess; or, rather, only two, for in Judges the reading should be ‘ashtaroth (pl. of ‘ashtoreth; see Ashtoreth) as in similar early statements with regard to forbidden cults. The passage I Kings xv, 13, often supposed to refer to the worship of a goddess, should be translated as in the R. V. “made an abominable thing for (i.e., as) an asherah.” The other two passages in Kings are regarded by recent conservative commentators as interpolations (cf. R. Kittel, Die Bücher der Könige, Göttingen, 1900, pp. 143, 300), and certainly justify the conclusion that at a late period asherah was used as another name for Ashtoreth. How this came about may be explained from the history of the asherah in Israel.
The Preexilic Asherah.
In preexilic times an asherah was not a divine companion or concurrent of a baal or the baals at all. It was, however, an indispensable part of the normal baal-worship. A “high-place,” or shrine of the baal (bamah) consisted of an altar (with or without a “sanctuary” ), a maẓẓebhah or stone pillar, and an asherah (see Altar; High Place; Memorials and Sacred Stones). The pillar was a survival of the old stone-worship; that is to say, the adoration of the local deities or numina, who had their abode in sacred stones (cf. the bethel of Gen. xxviii, 19 and elsewhere). The asherah or sacred pole was in like manner a survival of the old tree-worship, that is, of the cult of sacred trees whose sanctity is a marked feature of the early histories (e.g., Gen. xii, 6, R. V.; Judges ix, 37, R. V.). In the Hebrew text of Deut. xi, 30; Judges ix, 6 (cf. R. V.) the sacred tree and the sacred stone appear standing side by side. One step further in the inevitable syncretism was the combination of both of these with the cult of the baal, the presiding divinity or “proprietor” of the district, who gave fertility to its soil and all consequential blessings to its inhabitants (cf. Hos. ii, 5, 8; see Baal). Whatever other factors may have contributed to this cherishing of the asherim, these are the most important. At first the asherim were probably the stems of trees rudely chopped and stripped; afterward they were conventionalized into a shapely pole or mast, just as the “pillars” or maẓẓebhoth were at first roughly hewn blocks of stone.
Transformed into a Goddess.
At a later stage the asherah became transfigured into a goddess and naturally took the place of the old Ashtoreth in the imagination of the Hebrews, who, after the Exile, followed no longer the old Canaanitic rites. The fact that the worship of Ashtoreth had been combined with that of the baals, or rather absorbed into it, doubtless helped toward the substitution. The deification of an outward object of worship is a familiar phenomenon in nearly all religions, and in the present field of inquiry is actually paralleled by the conversion of a bethel or bait-ili (a god-inhabited stone) into a god, Baitulos, among the Phenicians and elsewhere (cf. Schrader, KAT, pp. 437–438).
Whether the fact that there was an old Canaanitic goddess Ashirtu, with a Babylonian namesake, aided in the confusion, in the Hebrew literature, of the two senses of asherah, is not quite clear. It is, at any rate, practically certain that in the time of the active idolatrous worship of Israel the asherah was not a goddess. See Ashtoreth.
Bibliography: B. Stade, in ZATW, i (1881), 343–346, iv (1884), 293–295, vi (1886), 318–319; T. K. Cheyne, The Prophecies of Isaiah, ii, 291–292 London, 1882; G. Hoffmann, in ZATW, iii (1883), 123; idem, Phönikische Inschriften, in Abhandlungen der Göttinger Gesellschaft der Wissenschaften, xxxvi (1889), 26–28; M. Ohnefalsch-Richter, Kypros, die Bibe1, und Homer, pp. 144–206, Berlin, 1893; Smith, Rel. of Sem., pp. 187–190, 469–479
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